Death in Five Instruments or Less

Erlkönig by Moritz von Schwind

Erlkönig by Moritz von Schwind

It can seem like orchestras have a monopoly on scary music. But while there are a number of really famous orchestral works (Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain) that terrify and rage, unexpected works both dark and disturbing are spread throughout the chamber music repertoire. Death for smaller ensembles tends to be sneakier, trickier, and sometimes quietly devastating. Below are five works that approach the end of life from different angles. The Schubert and Caplet show spooky personifications of death chasing its prey, while the Vaughan Williams and Smetana have much more sensitive, real-life depictions of death. The Liszt is both macabre and reflective in its commemoration of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution.

1. Schubert: "Erlkönig" for Voice and Piano

Text & Translations

Schubert’s song "Erlkönig" is based on a poem by Goethe which was probably inspired by a Danish folktale. In the poem, a father and his dying son gallop on horseback through a dark, dreary night. Death follows them and entices the son in a calm, soothing voice. The son resists but death ultimately wins. "Erlkönig" was one of Goethe’s most famous poems and possibly Schubert’s best-known work during his lifetime.

Schubert reverses the usual picture of death. Instead of death being loud, urgent, and angry, it’s the opposite—calm and unsettlingly seductive. The humans are the ones causing a racket with the galloping horse and yelling child.

2. Liszt: "Funérailles" from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses for Piano

Unlike the eerily high-pitched devil in "Erlkönig," Liszt’s “Funérailles” mostly stays in a low register. Liszt wrote the piece to commemorate the 1848 Hungarian Revolution and the execution of Hungarian Prime Minister Lajos Batthyány on October 6, 1849. The piece has three sections—the first evokes tolling bells across a battlefield, the second section (2:22 in the recording) is a lyrical funeral march, and the third section (7:35), which has thundering left-hand octaves that sound like Chopin (who died in October 1849), has a driving rhythm that CMS pianist Gilles Vonsattel describes as “nothing less than a cavalry charge into the abyss.” The last two sections are reprised before the unsettled ending.

3. Smetana: Trio in G minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 15

Bedřich Smetana dedicated this trio to his oldest daughter Bedřiška after she died at the age of four. She showed some talent for music, and her father was particularly fond of her. She was preceded in death by her younger sister, and Smetana would go on to lose another daughter and his wife in the next few years. Only one of his children survived to adulthood.

The first movement of the trio alternates between passages of grief and passages of tender reminiscence. Smetana recalled that the second theme (1:48) was based on a melody Bedřiška liked. The movement ends with a frenzied, banging rush to the finish.

4. Caplet: Conte fantastique for Harp, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello

Caplet’s Conte fantastique features the quietest, sneakiest, scariest instrument of all: the harp. The piece is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. The score summarizes the story:

Death, that horrible and fatal specter, haunts the region, seeking its prey. A young Prince and his friends challenge the plague by shutting themselves into a fortified abbey. There, the Prince rewards his guests with a magnificent masked ball. However, every hour, at the striking of an ancient clock, the dancers’ movements seem paralyzed. When the echo of the chimes dies away, the party resumes, but each time with less spirit and a growing sense of foreboding. Still, the music animates the dancers again. The couples whirl feverishly. Suddenly, the Prince stops the music with a brusque gesture. There, standing in the shadow of the clock just as it booms out its midnight toll, is a figure wrapped in a shroud. A mortal terror runs through the hall. It is the Red Death, coming like a thief in the night. One after another the guests fall, convulsed, to the floor of the hall, covered with a deadly dew.

Death arrives at 13:48—politely knocking first—right before the clock strikes midnight.

5. Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel for Baritone and Piano

Full Text

Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel depict life as a journey. They’re filled with wistful remembrances of childhood, lost love, the moorland, aging (“Cold beats the light of time upon your face”) and other forlorn topics with a quintessentially English touch. “Whither Must I Wander” (16:42) has a particularly bittersweet description of the author’s abandoned childhood home, and the last song (22:46) succinctly wraps up the cycle:

I have trod the upward and the downward slope;
I have endured and done in days before;
I have longed for all, and bid farewell to hope;
And I have lived and loved, and closed the door.

-Robert Louis Stevenson

Article by Laura Keller, Editorial Manager.

Hear more works exploring themes of mortality in Death and the Maiden, November 18 at Alice Tully Hall.

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